Literature for Nonhumans
by Gabriel Gudding,
Ahsahta Press, 2015,
144 pages, paper, $22,
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I was born in Chicago, “the great bovine city of the world,” “the historical city of the slaughterhouse,” as Gabriel Gudding aptly refers to it in Literature for Nonhumans. I was vaguely aware of Chicago’s, and all of Illinois’, slaughterhouse history, which Gudding examines shovel load upon encyclopedic shovel load, but like so many of us, I buried that knowledge deep in the back of the mind, where I conveniently don’t access it very often. That history is in the not-so-distant past; also in the not-so-distant past are my many years of vegan — and vegetarianism. Once the young man who stocked barbeque tempeh (“it’s not that bad, right!!!?!!?”) in
his parents’ refrigerator, now I count myself among the masses of lapsed vegetarians. There are many of us out there, plugging the holes in our conscience with organic sliders and free-range beef pups. As Gudding writes in his stunningly direct and spare Afterword, “the very thinkers who love animals and grow disturbed by their mass slaughter still eat them . . . still tell themselves it’s possible to humanely slaughter.”
I am among the guilty, and let it be said that I feel appropriately shamed. And yet, this is a poetry review. And Literature for Nonhumans is supposed to be a book of poetry, though it doesn’t always feel like it. I brought the book to the first day of my creative writing class, and we played “the novel game” with it, even though it isn’t a novel. For this game, I read the book’s back cover to the class, and then they tried to write the first sentence of that book. I’ll explain more of the game later in the review. However, after reading the book’s back cover to my class, I could tell I’d lost them. Eyeballs rolled back in heads; sighs escaped with obvious force. One young man laughed uproariously like he’d just heard a great joke: “Wait, wait . . . no, seriously . . . seriously . . . what did you just say? What’s this book about?”
What indeed is this book about? I told my student it was about slaughterhouses and animal rights. “Cool,” he said, but I could tell he wished it wasn’t about that. In retrospect my answer was rather stupidly reductive, but I chalked that up as yet another failed moment in the teaching of poetry. What can we do? This book is about many, many things. As the blurb on the back reads, it “links rivers, slaughterhouses, cars, buffalos, geology, churches, corn, defecation, piglet management, zombies, watches, sex. . . . ”
But mainly, it’s about nonhumans (meaning animals) and why we shouldn’t kill them. It all comes back to this refrain, though I couldn’t help but think that if, as the title suggests, this is supposed to be literature for nonhumans, wouldn’t my dog choose something a little more straightforward, a bit simpler, than this? Maybe something like . . . Hemingway? I could imagine my dog pointing to Gudding’s book in a bookstore, saying, “That’s a great book.” Then he’d choose All the Light We Cannot See.
Gudding is a seriously skilled poet. For example, take this passage from the section “Rivers for Animals”:
the sea is such an immense, babbling reservoir of urine . . .
sinking bags of organism, hull bottoms, dead children, ions,
and over it lolls the solar ovum banging through a park, the
south trees of a park, and there it goes getting onto a boat
under a river.
I love the galactic leap from “dead children” to “ions,” and then I really love the assonance that butts and smooths together “ions” and “over it,” and then the satisfying switch of the tongue to the roof of the mouth for the three “l”s in “lolls,” echoing that again in “solar,” and finally returning to the ghost of the assonance with that banging ovum. All ova will forever bang for me from now on.
Gudding’s prose (though I even feel forced to call it that) is far from prosaic, and I’d also not say it’s prose poetry, but more a poetic prose, wave upon wave, and it washes over you with the rhythmic lapping and sometimes crashing of history, economics, philosophy, and ethics: prose as a letting go of syntactic sense. “Rivers — their reason.” Poetry, its own reason.
But that’s not to say Gudding lacks a sense of humor in the midst of his vegan river rage. Body parts and functions litter the text, but I suppose one would have to find these funny, as I do, to consider it humor. I mean, how could you not think “Tart smell of farts over river water” isn’t a little bit funny? He also manages to use “anus” three times (unless I missed one), which prompts me to ask, how many times can one use “anus” in a book? Three times? That too much? Each one causes puckering.
But I have a feeling that this is exactly what Gudding is going for. He wants us attuned to our bodies so that we cannot so easily dismiss the bodies of our nonhuman brothers and sisters. Sometimes, he hits us with a moral slab of tofu: “We can feel comfort and love while eating a turkey while collectively denying the turkey’s wish for comfort and love, her desire to play and live.” Even with the syntax slightly off, the line hangs heavy, and feels less like poetry and more like polemics. That, indeed, is exactly the line this book walks. In fact, Gudding distances himself from a-ethical — ethically neutral — poetry that possesses a “performative indifference” to things like animal slaughter. Such conceptual poetry, as described on the Harriet Blog by K. Goldsmith and quoted by Gudding, “wouldn’t dare make the presumption that it has the power to affect the world for better or worse.” Indeed, that is the stuff that gives poetry a bad name.
It’s this sense of anguish, sometimes rage, that fills the book. When I finished reading it, I felt like I’d finished a novel, albeit one that moves primarily on one plane, ranging out widely to touch its topics. The book pulses with energy. In a highly entertaining and informative section about clocks and pocketwatches, Gudding writes:
Praised be the escapement, a device which through repetitive
mechanical motion regulates the running down of the
[e]motive powers. [reviewer’s creative emphasis]
This quote applies to Gudding’s entire book, which is a device to regulate and distribute the significant emotive powers at play. It feels measured in its passions because it needs to be. Otherwise, primal rage rarely sways a reader.
To end this review, I return to “the novel game.” As my students wrote their first line attempts, I copied down Gudding’s interestingly spaced first line (“The plan ets are old co l ore d platforms, almost porches.”). Then I collected all first lines, shuffled, and read them aloud, mixing in the real first line, and asked my students to vote. Surprisingly, no one voted for Gudding’s poetically unique opener; instead, a line about Hogwarts received the most votes. A professional hoop dancer in the front row, after hearing the real first line, said: “Yeah, I heard that one, and thought about it, but then I decided it was the worst of all.”
“No, no, wait, give it a chance,” I said to him. “It grows on you.”
— Jefferson Navicky